White beaches, crystal clear waters and luxury holidays are what comes to mind when you think of the Maldives. Beyond the lavish resort islands lies a growing problem with religious extremism. Per capita, the Maldives has the highest number of foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria. It is estimated that 1 out of every 1500 citizens has gone to fight with ISIS.
Political and socio-economic upheaval have been the root of the radicalisation issues in the Maldives. Like is so often the case, a disillusionment with society provides the perfect breeding ground for radicalisation. The country was hit hard by the 2004 tsunami, and many people fell into poverty after losing their homes and livelihoods. Wahhabi religious leaders framed this as God’s punishment for irreligious living. Saudi Salafist and Pakistani funded NGO’s came to the islands to help rebuild some of the worst hit areas. However, this was often used as an opportunity to radicalise Maldivian men living under the poverty line. Those with a lack of economic opportunity, especially young men, have long been a target of extremist recruiters.
The country underwent a rapid liberalisation, with a new constitution and its first multiparty democratic elections held in 2008. This is where the crisis of identity formed, the national identity was associated with belonging to Islam and not the new ‘apostate’ democratic state. As such, some citizens do not see returning fighters as criminals and as such a small country, many will have connections to the fighters and share similar beliefs.
The Maldivian government has a tough task ahead to stop the return of its foreign fighter citizens. The problem is that even a few entering could cause significant trouble. It is a lack of leadership currently which is said to be stopping any notable jihadist resistance in the country. The presence of battle hardened, committed and experienced extremists could quickly whip up support and organise the array of cells and gangs that exist in the Maldives. Those who have fought in Syria and Iraq have acquired the skills to coordinate such networks and realistically could organise some form of small-scale rebellion.
The threat of an attack to the local population and foreign tourists has been noted by the international community. The majority of the resorts in the Maldives are isolated and ill protected, perfect places for an attack. Their tourism industry is in a precarious place with nations like the US and UK warning its citizens of potential risks. Its economy has been devastated by the pandemic and cannot afford to have any further setbacks. With 25% of the country’s GDP coming from the tourism industry, this is a worrying sign.
Despite it being such a vital part of the economy, tourism is thought to be a driving factor in anti-government sentiment. There is a stark difference in culture between the conservative Islamic population and the heavy drinking, scantily clad liberal westerners. This has caused friction in the religious society. It is seen that the government are allowing, if not favouring, non-Islamic culture while neglecting the needs of its own population. These grievances may have some merit considering the high levels of unemployment in the country. However, this is a dangerous rhetoric to still be circulating, especially if people believe the claims by religious leaders as to the cause of the 2004 tsunami. It could be a worrying sign of trouble to come.
When you look at factors that increase the likelihood of radicalisation, the Maldives does seem to be somewhat of a melting pot. There is political instability, unemployment, climate change worries, gang violence and an economy devastated by the pandemic. Mix this with a strong Islamic identity and manipulation from foreign actors like the Wahhabism and Saudi Salafist groups, it not unsurprising the radicalisation issue is growing.